Apr 16, 2016

Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper - A Gripping Tale of Jazz and Heroin

A visceral reading experience:


Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper  is easily in the top 2 or 3 jazz books I have ever read.  It reads as much more than a jazz book, it's a whirlwind of hard living, trials, and tribulations about the jazz saxophonist (1925-1982).

The author of the book Laurie Pepper, the third wife and widow of Art has managed to create a book so compelling and "real", that I couldn't keep from running it over and over in my mind after reading it. Rarely have I been affected like this from a film, piece of music, or a book. Hard to believe this book hasn't been brought to the big screen by now?

The best way to describe Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper is to think in terms of it being a heroin junkie's journal, who happens to be one the greatest alto saxophonists in jazz history. You will learn that the music he made, was the only outlet he really had to express his inner pain. I like how Art is just a man in this book, warts and all, it's all there for us to see. A tortured soul, complex, but simple in many ways.

Reading this book should serve as a cautionary tale too about allowing yourself to get into a situation where drugs can take their hold. I have many friends who have lost family members to the drug heroin here in the Ohio Valley the past several years, as unfortunately the drug has made a huge comeback with its low cost and availability.

First, heroin was as an alternative when pill mills were shut down as an attempt to crack down on illegal pain killers being sold on both the legitimate and black market. Many people had no choice but to turn to "H" for their own pain management issues. Seems like the familiar refrain is:

" I got hooked on pain killers when I had a back surgery...or what have you, then I was told to go cold turkey... heroin was my only option for pain management." Sad, but I hear this story time and time again in 2016.

Now unfortunately it's become so readily available that emotionally underdeveloped kids are experimenting with it too. Yes, imagine experimenting with the grim reaper, one hot load and your dead!

That fact, heroin's high-risk overdose nature makes it all the more miraculous that Art made it to 1982 at all.

Synanon in Straight Life


Laurie Pepper met Art around 1968 at Synanon, at that time it was a drug treatment center. Later it became a cult of sorts, that's been well chronicled, with members reportedly being convicted of attempted murder and tax evasion. Sure helped save Art's life though at the time.

Synanon helped Art clean up some, but those years took their tole on Art and Laurie. I think after reading the book you can clearly see, had Laurie not been there, Art would have been robbed of his last 15 years of life.

We the jazz lovers would have been robbed of some of his best music in my opinion. I treasure those Village Vanguard recordings with George Cables on piano and Elvin Jones on drums for instance. Winter Moon is another one, complete with strings that stands out to me.

Art Pepper can paint a picture


Again without spoiling too much, Art basically gave interviews, notes were taken, and the stories were edited and put into the book by Laurie. The realism of the lifestyle, both drug culture, and his early neglectful childhood are very uncomfortable at times.

Art uses slang terms, and talks about sexual encounters in a frank manner. Including those when he was a young boy, and he in detail talks about some of the hedonistic things he did with groupies. So keep that in mind if you are a prude.

He talks frankly about his mother and father, his kids, 2 ex-wives, and talks about people he didn't care for. He's not afraid to candidly talk about other jazz musicians either, both musically and personally. Lots of juicy tidbits in that regard in Straight Life.

OK, what about the jazz side of the book?


Understand that this book's strength, what makes it so emotionally enthralling, is the personal stuff. I had thought that there would be more about the music in this book, but let's face it, heroin was a big part of Art's life for large chuck of it. There is plenty of jazz talk though, so don't worry about that.

I am a big fan of the Stan Kenton orchestra, I knew Art was one of Stan's first real star soloists. Art was known for not being a Charlie Parker clone, and in the late 40's and early 50's Art was a big part of the Kenton band. Art does give a glimpse into the life of a road band circa 1950, with plenty of poop on Kenton, June Christy, and other members of the band.

Ultimately though, it's all about copping a score, heroin at all costs, it's amazing how this guy lived beyond the 1950's honestly. You will see why from an early age Art began down this road. There was a void that needed filling, and heroin was the filler.

Art does talk about various recording sessions, with different bands, and his own solo work, but his life was really about scoring for a good part of it.

The seedy underbelly of the drug culture of the late 40's and early 50's is a picture painted by Art in the same way Martin Scorsese painted 1970's New York City authentically in his films of the era. You won't forget this book I know that.

If you do check out this book, make sure you get the latest edition. As Laurie adds an afterword with Art's later years (79-82). There's also an updated Art Pepper discography in the book.

*Photos used with permission via Amazon.com*

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